Animators Dash Shaw and Jane Samborski take us behind the scenes of ‘Cryptozoo’
Fantastical life forms, born of ancient folklore, roam the frames of director Dash Shaw’s acidly wondrous animated feature “Cryptozoo.” Winged, fanged, iridescent or humanoid, these entities inhabit every corner of the Earth in the artist’s hand-drawn alternative reality. But they are not immune to mankind’s hunger to possess. There are those who hunt the mythical beings to use their ancestral powers for warfare, while others, seemingly more benevolent, wish to put them on display at a theme park under the pretense of safety.
With this morally intricate and imagination-fueled universe, Shaw and animation director Jane Samborski, partners in life and creativity, finessed the DIY techniques that birthed their 2016 feature debut “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea,” an animated disaster movie ridden with hilarious teenage angst. For the more elaborate “Cryptozoo,” they significantly expanded the size of the team, yet the artistic through line of their independent operation remained a two-headed beast. This sophomore film — starring Lake Bell, Michael Cera and Angeliki Papoulia — premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the NEXT Innovator Award.
Inspired by the Baku, a dream-eating creature from Japanese legend, Shaw, also a renowned comic book artist, came to the conclusion that cinema, specifically the animation medium, and its dreamlike quality would best suit this idea rather than static pages. From that impulse, the married team based in Richmond, Va., began concocting an adult-oriented adventure (not squeamish about sex, profanity and violence) from Samborski’s Dungeons and Dragons (a.k.a. D&D) fandom, Shaw’s childhood dream of becoming a Disney Imagineer and their reverence for the work of pioneers of the moving image. The odd fruit of their wildly audacious labor is a kaleidoscopic visual potion. Below are edited excerpts from the pair’s recent conversation with The Times.
Dash, how did you become fascinated by mythological creatures, or cryptids?
Dash Shaw: I had seen an unfinished film by Winsor McCay called “The Centaurs” from 1921. All of McKay’s projects are doing things that you can only do in drawing, like “Gertie the Dinosaur” and “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” That this master of animation had this idea of mythological beings and had not finished it was extra inspiring. That short has an adultness to it. It has these sexy half-nude centaurs in a collage-like forest. Around the time when I saw that, Jane had an all-women’s D&D group and I wanted to write something that she would enjoy executing. She researched and designed most of the cryptids in the movie.
Jane, given the sheer number of cryptids, how did you go about selecting and creating your versions of them for the film?
Jane Samborski: We specifically chose creatures that exist in mythologies around the world. We did not invent any creatures for the purposes of the film. It was very important for me to look at the earliest possible representations of those creatures that I could find on the internet. Those are so imaginative and so strange and break all the rules. The best thing in the world is a drawing of a lion by someone who has never seen a lion. I found these really inspirational pictures that were wild, unlike more modern representations, where they’re trying to make these creatures make sense physiologically. Then, of course, those amazing images are run through my personal filter. One that comes to mind is the Tarrasque, which has been in every edition of D&D. Every time they come out with a new monster manual, there’s an artist trying to make this absurd creature. It has a scorpion tail, a turtle shell back, six bear legs, and a human-lion head. It’s bizarre.
From a technical standpoint, can you briefly describe the handcraft and ingenuity that went into the creation of this unique, independent project?
Samborski: Almost every image that you see on the screen starts as something physical. We have some things that are models, but most of it is pencil drawings or wash paintings, all physical stuff. Then we bring that into the computer and we use the power of technology. We use Photoshop and After Effects to composite those images. For many things, I’m building a structure to articulate and create a computer puppet that can be animated or in other places I am doing something that’s more like traditional cel animation. Then we bring in amazing work by all sorts of guest stars to riff off of and to create this collage that honors all the artists we’re lucky enough to work with and is where the freshness of the film comes from.
Did the character of Lauren Gray, the heroine guiding us through this world, emerge from a specific reference?
Shaw: The first idea was the mythological creatures, and then came a network of different people who have a perspective on whether or not the cryptozoo was a good idea. We have Joan, Lauren and a cryptid, Phoebe, and their conversation about the cryptozoo is the center of the movie. Lauren to me is someone who has a childhood connection to the mythological world, and so her motivation is coming from that, but I couldn’t start the movie with her. I thought it would be like starting with Laura Croft. I wanted to start the movie with someone that doesn’t know anything about mythological beings and was just stumbling across it.
Samborski: Dash didn’t design the human characters until after the movie was cast. So a lot of who Lauren is really came from the absolutely wonderful performance that Lake Bell gave us. An actor brings something to it, and that informs your drawings.
Shaw: In “High School Sinking” we had most of it drawn before anyone had been cast. And so in retrospect, I thought we had some missed opportunities there. A lot of the movie is the way Lauren’s character looks and her face. That’s because Lake Bell has a pre-Raphaelite kind of look to her and it made me think of that Dante Gabriel Rossetti paintings of Jane Morris. That idea only happened after Lake had been cast. That’s a very iconic fantasy look that I hadn’t seen in a movie before, but you see on these paintings.
The film’s premise calls to mind “Jurassic Park.” Why were you enticed by these excessive displays of mass entertainment?
Samborski: Dash has loved amusement parks for as long as I’ve known him. I know that he would draw theme park map after theme park map. They’re such strange places; it’s supposed to be where imagination is running free, but when you’re actually there, you’re trapped and all the food’s really expensive and it’s like a tricked out airport. It’s a very strange dichotomy.
Shaw: Zoos, amusement parks, or museums, especially the ones at Epcot that attempt to summarize the whole world, have good intentions of introducing these beings to the public, but these can often damage those beings. Still, an amusement park is a great setting. Like Jane said, when I was a little boy, I wanted to be an Imagineer. I loved Disney. There’s some of that in there.
Although “Cryptozoo” is quite funny, there’s a sense of gravitas to the story that takes the reality of this fiction seriously. Tell me about your intentions in that regard.
Shaw: In our alternative comics the humor is not in a joke. The humor is a sensibility that is odd, that is kind of unmoored from reality. That is what works for me. When something is trying to be funny or have you feel like a joke is going to happen, it doesn’t make me laugh. It often feels like there’s desperation behind it. It’s a turnoff for me. But in comics, sometimes just the way something is rendered is funny. There are a lot of things in this movie that have an unusual perspective. It’s a little hard to describe, but I’m definitely not like a comedy writer.
Did the limited number of independent animated features produced in the U.S., especially those with mature themes, ever discourage you from pursuing this medium?
Shaw: The best answer to this question is just that we have made these two movies and I hope people will go see this in the theater. If other people are interested in independent animation, they could watch “Cryptozoo” and, I hope, see that we’ve done it, because when live-action filmmakers are starting out, often they meet someone who has made a film, and that makes it very possible. I never met anyone who had made an independent animated feature in the United States. A lot of the motivation was thinking, “Can we do it?”
What’s the key to the functionality of your relationship as creative collaborators working towards the same vision?
Samborski: One of the things that make the movie really magical is that Dash and I have fairly different aesthetics. We approach these problems differently. Dash is more minimalist. He likes simple and I like way too much. Dash does really bold drawings and I do tight fussy drawings. I like all the colors and I like it to be quasi-realistic but still rainbow and Dash likes to be more of a moody, expressive color that doesn’t necessarily have to correspond to the actual image it’s coloring. There’s this great push and pull that is happening in every single scene of the film between our opposing but complementary visual ideas.
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